How Alphonse Mucha’s Iconic Posters Came to Define Art Nouveau

Cath Pound
Nov 13, 2018 10:53PM

Alphonse Mucha, Rêverie, 1897. © Mucha Trust 2018.

Alphonse Mucha, Autoportrait en chemise russe (roubachka) dans l’atelier de la rue de la Grande-Chaumière, Paris, 1882. © Mucha Trust 2018

Alphonse Mucha’s instantly recognizable works feature beautiful women with long tendrils of hair and flowing garments surrounded by decorative botanical motifs in delicate shades of peach, gold, ochre, and eau de Nil. The Czech artist originally found fame via his stunningly original poster designs for the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, but is best known today for his innovative advertisements, posters, and decorative works. Although Mucha resented his work’s formal association with Art Nouveau, which to him represented a uniquely contemporary—rather than timeless—movement, the egalitarian nature of the poster was instrumental in popularizing an aesthetic that, to many, became known simply as le style Mucha.

Born in 1860 in the small Moravian town of Ivančice, then one of the Slavic provinces of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, Mucha came of age in an era of nationalistic consciousness, a reaction against the increasing Germanization of Czech culture. As such, he saw art as a means of responding to his nation’s need for cultural representation. These aspirations were put on hold following his rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Mucha was forced to earn a living as an apprentice scene painter in Vienna, and then as a portrait painter in the Moravian town of Mikulov. His talents eventually caught the eye of two local counts, whose patronage allowed him to gain formal training in Munich, and later in Paris.

Alphonse Mucha, Les Saisons: l’été , 1896. © Mucha Trust 2018.

Alphonse Mucha, papier à cigarette (Job), 1896. © Mucha Trust 2018.


He spent some time as an illustrator in Paris before his big break came in 1894, when the legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt commissioned Mucha to design a poster for Gismonda, a Greek melodrama she was to star in and direct. “The way he treated Sarah Bernhardt’s poster was revolutionary,” said Tomoko Sato, curator of the Mucha Foundation in Prague and organizer of a current survey of the artist’s work at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Mucha chose to portray Bernhardt in character, dressed in an exquisitely embroidered gown and dramatic orchid headdress.

The poster caused a sensation when it appeared on hoardings throughout Paris in January 1895. Thanks to developments in lithographic printing, Mucha, as well as artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Théophile Steinlen, took daring risks in their designs. Paris entered a golden age of poster art; the streets turned into veritable open-air art exhibitions. Yet nothing like Mucha’s design had been seen before. While the work’s muted pastel palette was in marked contrast to the bolder color schemes prevalent in poster art of the time, it was the extremely narrow, life-size composition of Mucha’s design that was truly groundbreaking. (Sato suggests that Japanese scrolls—then being imported heavily into France—influenced the format.)

A delighted Bernhardt invited Mucha to serve as artistic director of her theater, designing posters, stage sets, costumes, and jewelry for her productions. Following the design principles of Gismonda, Mucha created an additional six posters for Bernhardt. These works proved instrumental in creating an enduring image of “The Divine Sarah” in the public imagination.

Alphonse Mucha, Salon des Cent: exposition de l’oeuvre de Mucha, 1897. © Mucha Trust 2018.

Alphonse Mucha, Le Zodiaque, 1896. © Mucha Trust 2018.

His association with the celebrated performer led to a flood of commissions, and the partnership also benefited his artistic development. To produce his iconic images of Bernhardt, Mucha carefully studied her performances and noted “the particular magic of her movements.” The costumes he designed for her were meant to enhance her gestures. As Bernhardt sat, stood, or turned, the diaphanous fabric of her dress would swirl around her. These flowing movements later found their way into his commercial and decorative work.

The Parisian printer Ferdinand Champenois recognized the commercial possibilities of Mucha’s style, and offered the artist an exclusive commercial contract. Mucha went on to design posters for brands such as JOB cigarette papers (1896), Chocolat Idéal (1897), and Moët & Chandon (1899). All of these advertisements included a version of the so-called “Mucha Woman,” now using all of her ethereal charms to communicate the desirability of a product, rather than the strength of a performance. He also embarked on a wholly new endeavor: the creation of purely decorative panels for domestic use. Mucha’s delightful aesthetic perfectly lent itself to panel series such as “The Times of Day” (1899) or “The Flowers” (1898), which feature women embodying the titular themes set against detailed botanical backdrops.

Yet his patriotic feelings lingered, leading Mucha to increasingly incorporate Slavic motifs in his work. These appeared in the form of florals—inspired by Moravian folk arts—or in prominently placed discs, which, for Mucha, recalled Byzantine icons. In Byzantine Heads (1897), the images of two women wearing luxurious hair ornaments are set in circular frames, surrounded by an exquisite lacework pattern influenced by Moravian craftwork. He also referenced the geometric patterns familiar in Czech Baroque churches in the decorative surrounds of series such as “The Seasons” (1896). Mucha’s success was, in part, a product of good timing: France enjoyed close cultural relations with Russia, and, bolstered by a visit from Tsar Nicholas II in 1896, a wave of Russophilia swept through fin-de-siècle Paris.

Alphonse Mucha, Gismonda, 1894. © Mucha Trust 2018.

Alphonse Mucha, Les Saisons: l’hiver , 1896. © Mucha Trust 2018.

Mucha’s star only continued to rise. In 1896, poet and novelist Léon Deschamps, founder of the French art magazine La Plume, invited Mucha to join the Salon des Cent. He was given a major retrospective there the following year. Six editions of La Plume devoted to the artist served as a catalogue for the exhibition, which further spread his fame as it toured through Europe.

It was during this time that Mucha’s style become inextricably linked with Art Nouveau. The movement’s focus on natural motifs and flowing, organic lines had much in common with his own work. Yet Mucha was dismissive of the movement’s name. “From his point of view,” Sato explained, Art Nouveau “was new art. He thought art should be permanent—universal or timeless.” Nevertheless, his work was instrumental in popularizing the Art Nouveau aesthetic. Better yet, his posters and graphic works were visible to everyone on the street, and could be purchased by those who might not have had the means to buy more expensive luxuries such as Tiffany lamps or Lalique glassware.

In 1904, Mucha traveled to New York for a two-month visit. His fame was evident even across the Atlantic, and he was greeted like a celebrity. Although he produced posters for American actresses such as Leslie Carter, Mucha’s primary aim in the United States was to raise funds for a new project that was dear to his heart—The Slav Epic, a cycle of 20 paintings that he conceived as a monument to Slavic unity.

Alphonse Mucha
Monaco-Monte-Carlo, 1897
Rennert’s Gallery
Alphonse Mucha
Job, 1898
Rennert’s Gallery

In 1910, he returned to his homeland after a 25-year absence to concentrate on its creation, accepting only outside commissions that would promote Czech cultural or philanthropic events. (In his charming 1911 poster for Czech composer Oskar Nedbal’s ballet-pantomime Princess Hyacinth, for example, his traditional style takes on a fairy-tale element.) Mucha was able to present the completed Slav Epic to the city of Prague in 1928, 10 years after the founding of an independent Czechoslovakia. Tragically, only 11 years later, the Nazis marched into the city and declared it a protectorate. As a prominent Czech patriot, Mucha was arrested and questioned by the Gestapo. In weak health and with his spirit broken, he died shortly after his release.

Mucha was interred in the Slavin monument in Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery, the final resting place of many great Czechs. The monument bears the inscription “Though dead they still speak to us.” Mucha’s work continues to do just that. His work, largely disseminated through posters—one of the most important and egalitarian forms of visual communication of the 20th century—has largely defined a glamorous era that continues to excite the public imagination. His unique sense of design and powerfully sensuous line have ensured that even his most commercial works have transcended their original purpose to become artworks in their own right, reproduced throughout the world to this day.

Cath Pound